NewsBusters Win: NPR Host Diane Rehm Forced to Stop Right-to-Die Fundraisers

It’s a NewsBusters win. On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported -- inside the Metro section on page B-3 -- that NPR and its Washington affiliate WAMU agreed with talk-show host Diane Rehm that she would stop being the star attraction at fundraising dinners for the leftist assisted-suicide lobbying group calling itself Compassion & Choices.

The Post account by Michael Rosenwald was only 524 words and carried the mild headline “Rehm scales back right-to-die efforts.” (She's attending two more fundraisers in March, which are already sold out, based on her celebrity in Liberal Land.) Unsurprisingly, the Post omitted the role of NewsBusters in this decision:

Following criticism from NPR’s ombudsman and concern from top public radio officials, Diane Rehm has agreed to stop attending fundraising dinners for Compassion & Choices, a group advocating for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide.

On Sunday, February 15, the Post put Rehm’s new crusade on the front page with an 1,800-word article, and Rosenwald never noticed this might cause a media-ethics debate, spurring our critique. Rosenwald now reported:

But shortly after The Post article appeared, NPR’s ombudsman raised questions about whether the longtime talk show host was violating NPR’s ethical standards. (Rehm works for WAMU, but her show is distributed and promoted by NPR.)

“My own view,” wrote ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen, “is that Rehm’s participation as a celebrity guest of sorts at fundraising dinners for an organization that does extensive political lobbying, as compelling as her personal story is and as careful as she is being, is a step too far for someone associated with NPR.”

The ombudsman’s article linked to NewsBusters and quoted me from Twitter:

"Can an NPR host speak at fundraisers for Kevorkian-esque ballot initiatives now?"

It's a good question.

Jensen said Rehm's fundraising was "a step too far," and that marked the beginning of an internal debate.

NPR and WAMU officials held a meeting last week to discuss the matter, at which Rehm said she was asked how she would feel about not attending the dinners. She said she told them, “I was saddened but understood their position.”

Rehm agreed to stop attending the dinners — except for two this month she was already scheduled to appear at and are sold out. She plans to continue helping the organization, but on a “case-by-case basis” and in consultation with her station manager.

Most importantly for her, Rehm said she wasn’t backing away from being a right-to-die proponent.

“This should be a right for me and should have been a right for my husband,” she said....

WAMU station manager J.J. Yore said listeners had expressed “very little concern” about Rehm’s position on the issue, but from his perspective “the dinners were always the trickiest part. I think we’ve come to a good resolution here,” he said.

None of this debate has been discussed on the air at NPR -- media reporter David Folkenflik is covering Bill O'Reilly, but not this -- and this discussion and new policy is not posted anywhere on the home page of WAMU -- which is pitching right now for contributions. That membership drive may have forced a solution.

In her article announcing the decision to curtail Rehm's activism, Jensen quoted Eric Nuzum, NPR's vice president of programming as proclaiming "We came to the right place."

Jensen noted Rehm said she told the executives that the decision "made me somewhat sad but I totally understand their perspective." After the two upcoming dinners she will not do any more fundraising, she said, but "I will not hide my own feelings" when it comes to discussing the issue.

This controversy prompoted NPR to update its ethics code to required NPR "acquired shows" from their affiliates to follow the same guidelines as national NPR programs.

Regarding Rehm's show alone, NPR outlined the outcome of the meeting in a statement:

As a talk show host, Diane Rehm is free to express her own opinions alongside people who have different views. This is one of the things her listeners expect, and it allows for empathy, and a lively exchange of ideas. Diane's visibility on end-of-life issues comes from a very recent personal experience but raises important considerations regarding impartiality.

Together with WAMU, the show's producer, we have determined the following:

The Diane Rehm Show will continue to handle end-of-life issues as it does all other newsworthy subjects – giving them no more and no less coverage than the news dictates. If and when the show addresses end-of-life issues, Diane will remind the audience about her personal experience and be transparent about her affiliation with any organization focused on the issue. She has always been candid with her audience. Listeners expect and appreciate this openness.

To further avoid any perception of conflict, Diane has decided that after she honors her commitment to participate in two additional Compassion & Choices dinners this month, she will no longer participate in their fundraising events.

NPR will continue to work with the producers of all the programs we distribute to clarify that our ethics guidelines apply.

Jensen expressed satisfaction: "I think it's a good outcome."

PS: Kelly McBride, who's often quoted as an ethical expert on "the soul of journalism," disagreed:

NPR Diane Rehm Elizabeth Jensen
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